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I recently found an article calling into question the effect of Mao's policies on the famine during the Great Leap Forward in China towards the end of the 1950s. The author doesn't go as far as to claim outright that there was no famine during this period of Chinese history, but he states that the sources which largely attribute the famine to Mao's policies are both biased and lack sufficient credibility. Is there sufficient credible evidence to attribute 30 million deaths during this period to Mao's failed policies (intentional or otherwise)?

The article claims that the death count was released by Deng Xiaoping's government to cast Mao in a bad light:

Official Chinese sources, released after Mao’s death, suggest that 16.5 million people died in the Great Leap Forward. These figures were released during an ideological campaign by the government of Deng Xiaoping against the legacy of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, there seems to be no way of independently, authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public.

and the reasoning he gives for this claim is:

By encouraging the Chinese ruling class to describe the Great Leap Forward as a disaster that killed millions, Deng was able to develop a political line that made his regressive policies in the countryside seem legitimate.

The author also claims that there are a lack of independent sources of data with which to determine the total number of deaths:

The main reason so few national population data appear in Chinese sources, however, is central censorship. No national population figures can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council. Even officials of the SSB [State Statistical Bureau] cannot use such figures until they have been cleared.

If there is independent evidence of such a large number of deaths, this would go a long way towards disproving the claims made in this article and affirming that the Great Leap Forward was indeed responsible for 30 million deaths.

As a further point against the likelihood of such a large famine, the author brings up large increases in Chinese life expectancy during that era:

But how is it possible to reconcile such statistics with the figures on life expectancy that the same authors quote?

national life expectancy

  • 30 million out of half a billion is just 0.6% – SIMEL Apr 11 '14 at 8:53
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    What exactly is your question? Was Mao responsible for 30M deaths? Can 30M people die and life expectancy go up simultaneously? – Flimzy Apr 11 '14 at 14:47
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    @IlyaMelamed: Check your math. It's actually 6%. – jwodder Apr 11 '14 at 19:06
  • @Flimzy yes both of those questions – mulllhausen Apr 11 '14 at 21:39
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    I see the question as "Did Mao's policies kill 30M people?" with the (alleged) life expectancy rise as a reason to be skeptical about the common accounts. I'd vote up any answer that gives strong evidence that explains the 30M figure - it has to be stronger than the counter-evidence. – Oddthinking Apr 12 '14 at 1:36
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As mentioned in your question, you'll be hard pressed to find hard numbers on the failures of totalitarian societies. So in a way, your question can't be answered concretely but we can find out if such a political failure is possible by analyzing each policy and reviewing what academia and historians have said.

The estimates vary wildly from 18 million (1) to 45 million (2) deaths, around 2-8% of the estimated 670 million inhabitants, died from mistreatment or starvation.

Policy: Four Pests Campaign

In 1958 Mao initiated a campaign to eradicate 4 pests (mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows).

The masses of China were mobilized to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed. By 1960, Chinese leaders realized that sparrows ate a large amount of insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased

(3)

This problem was exacerbated by a devastating locust swarm, which was caused when their natural predators were killed as part of the Great Sparrow Campaign. Although actual harvests were reduced, local officials, under tremendous pressure from central authorities to report record harvests in response to the innovations, competed with each other to announce increasingly exaggerated results. These were used as a basis for determining the amount of grain to be taken by the State to supply the towns and cities, and to export. This left barely enough for the peasants, and in some areas, starvation set in.

(4)

Policy: Industrialisation

During this time 21 million people were taken out of agriculture. Resulting in major stress on China's food-rationing system, which led to increased and unsustainable demands on rural food production. (5)

Policy: Backyard Furnaces

Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood...huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal. To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants' houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the "scrap" for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals. (6)

Policy: Irrigation Works

Trying to boost agricultural productivity, Mao, invested massive human resources in poorly planned water works. This resulted in the diversion and often death of thousands of agricultural workers.

Mao was well aware of the human cost of these water-conservancy campaigns. In early 1958, while listening to a report on irrigation in Jiangsu, he mentioned that:

"Wu Zhipu claims he can move 30 billion cubic metres; I think 30,000 people will die. Zeng Xisheng has said that he will move 20 billion cubic metres, and I think that 20,000 people will die. Weiqing only promises 600 million cubic metres, maybe nobody will die."

(7)

Policy: Crop Experimentation

On the communes, a number of radical and controversial agricultural innovations were promoted at the behest of Mao. The policies included close cropping, whereby seeds were sown far more densely than normal on the incorrect assumption that seeds of the same class would not compete with each other. Deep plowing (up to 2 m deep) was encouraged on the mistaken belief that this would yield plants with extra large root systems. Moderately productive land was left unplanted with the belief that concentrating manure and effort on the most fertile land would lead to large per-acre productivity gains. Altogether, these untested innovations generally led to decreases in grain production rather than increases.

(8)

Policy: Export and Food Aid

During the period of the Great Leap Forward, China continued to be a net exporter of grain, despite the widespread famine experienced in the countryside, as Mao sought to maintain face and convince the outside world of the success of his plans. Foreign aid was refused. When the Japanese foreign minister told his Chinese counterpart Chen Yi of an offer of 100,000 tonnes of wheat to be shipped out of public view, he was rebuffed. (9)

Conclusion

The Great Leap Forward was a series of political blunders that either exacerbated or caused the "worst famine in the history of the world" (10). The exact figures of the dead will never be known, but with the decimation of the agricultural industry, mistreatment of the rural workforce, rejection of food aid and continued export of grain during a time of widespread famine, it would be entirely possible that 2-8% of the population may starve.

Despite the risks to their careers, some Communist Party members openly laid blame for the disaster at the feet of the Party leadership. Liu Shaoqi made a speech in 1962 at Seven Thousand Cadres Conference criticizing that "The economic disaster was 30% fault of nature, 70% human error." (11)


  1. Gráda, Cormac Ó (2011). Great Leap into Famine. UCD Centre For Economic Research Working Paper Series. p. 9
  2. Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010 p. 12 & 333
  3. Shapiro, Judith Rae (2001). Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge University Press.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Leap_Forward
  5. Lardy and Fairbank (1987)
  6. Cook, Ian G.; Geoffrey Murray (2001). China's Third Revolution: Tensions in the Transition Towards a Post-Communist China.
  7. The memoirs of Jiang Weiqing Jiangsu renmin chubanshe. p.421.
  8. Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village.
  9. Dikötter, Frank (1991). pp.114-115.
  10. Ashton, Hill, Piazza, and Zeitz (1984). Famine in China, 1958-61. Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Dec., 1984). p.614
  11. Twentieth Century China: Third Volume. Beijing, 1994. p.430

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